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by Kelly Mangan & Adrea Theodore

‘Write what you know’ is a popular refrain we’re used to hearing as writers. And for good reason! When you write from your own, lived experience, there’s an honesty and authenticity to your words that’s hard to duplicate.

But what do you do when a lived experience is rooted in a difficult or uncomfortable reality? How do you translate those sorts of experiences into a story for kids? And…should you?

There are no easy, universal answers to these questions. But hopefully OUR answers will help as you dig into your own life experiences for story inspiration.

Why write about reality?

ADREA: For me, it starts with the story. If there’s a particular story that I want to tell, I have to consider if using the framework of a real-life experiences is the best way to do it. With my debut picture book, A HISTORY OF ME, I had a story to tell about a young girl being the only person of color in class during lessons on slavery and segregation. I had a story to tell about that same girl growing in her understanding of and appreciation for her heritage, one that includes an ancestor who was enslaved in this country. It might be difficult to write about, but not nearly as difficult as actually having the experience. This story is also worth sharing, since I know there are other kids out there experiencing the same or similar things right now.

KELLY: I write about challenging realities to comfort and validate kids going through similar situations. But also…? Because I want encourage kids to think about why things are the way they are, and to question if they could be different. For example, I was the fat girl growing up. I never once saw a fat character in a picture book who wasn’t either a bully or a buffoon. Sadly, that remains largely unchanged in children’s media (fat is often used as a visual shorthand for a whole slew of negative character traits). So I often seek out story ideas which confront this paradigm.

How do I know if a topic is appropriate for kids or not? 

KELLY: I think virtually any topic can be broached with kids if done in a thoughtful, developmentally-appropriate way. I have two children who are picture-book-age, so I often think about how I’d explain a difficult topic to them. What questions or concerns do I anticipate them having? How could I answer those in a way that is honest and honors their intelligence, but which isn’t overly upsetting? And perhaps most importantly: What’s the overarching message or feeling I want kids to take away from this story?

ADREA:  I definitely agree. The pages of a book can be viewed as a safe space to hear about or see things that can be scary, difficult to handle, or hard to explain.

How do you address serious topics in children’s books in an age-appropriate way?

ADREA:  My approach?  First, try to see it—whatever “it” is—from a kid’s perspective. Remember what it was like to be that age; and if it’s from your own experience, remember what or how you felt.  What was most important to you?

Second, simplify “it” in terms that would make sense to a young person. Consider your words, phrases, sentence structure, and metaphors. Keep in mind that the illustrations will likely carry as much weight as the words, especially for those who aren’t yet reading on their own. As an example, in A HISTORY OF ME, there is a scene that takes place on a playground because these spaces are familiar to young children. The playground is known as a place for fun, but it becomes a place of racial insensitivity; and this juxtaposition is unsettling, but necessary.

KELLY: I always start from a personal experience, like being the only fat girl in my ballet class. Then I dig into the little, concrete details of that experience: the disdainful way other students looked at me; the snickers of the parents; my own mother’s fear of me performing and embarrassing myself. I needn’t ever say “people didn’t think she could be a dancer because she was fat”– for one, because it’s unnecessary: children are smarter, more nuanced readers/listeners than adults often give them credit for. And for two, because focusing too much on the pain can actually be damaging to kids rather than empowering. It’s a tough balance.

Does writing about reality always have to be sad? 

KELLY: Absolutely not! I don’t write about serious topics to make kids sad. I write about them to instill hope, foster compassion, and to make kids feel seen. There has to be light at the end of the tunnel. Ultimately, I’m trying to distill my experiences down into something useful for kids.

ADREA:  When we write about a serious topic, one that is uncomfortable or difficult in real life, we should consider how to present it in such a way that it’s beneficial to our audience.  Is this something that can be used as a mirror for some kids or a window for others?  Can it enhance empathy or cultivate kindness? And is there a way to leave the child reader with hope, regardless of the situation?  The onus is on the writer to find that hope first and then bring it out in the text so the reader can see it and grab hold of it.

ADREA THEODORE is a mom, a pediatrician and a children’s book author from North Carolina.  Her debut picture book, A HISTORY OF ME (Neal Porter Books/Holiday House) is available for pre-order now and in stores soon (January 18, 2022)! When not writing, Dr. Theodore works in a local child advocacy center (CAC) with children being evaluated for abuse or neglect. Every child she sees there also has a story to tell. Follow her on Twitter @adrea_theodore or check her website for upcoming event info: adreatheodore.com.

KELLY MANGAN an author and illustrator of picture books, middle grade, and young adult stories. She was a 2021 #PBChat mentee, and recently won an honorable mention in the KidLit411 annual banner contest. Though originally from the south, she now resides in snowy Vermont with her partner and two kids. When she’s not writing or drawing, you’ll likely find her weaving on a rigid heddle loom, reading anything with Squirrel Girl, or watching Star Trek with a cup of Earl Grey, hot. Follow her on Twitter @KellyAMangan or visit authorkellymangan.com for more info.

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We are giving away not one, but TWO fabulous prizes!

One picture book critique from Kelly and one copy of A HISTORY OF ME to two random winners.

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You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below.

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

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My Books

Coming soon:


TIME FLIES
"7 ATE 9/PRIVATE I" BOOK #3
illus by Ross MacDonald
Little, Brown
April 26, 2022

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